Hild is a newly released historical novel by the British author Nicola Griffith that she has described as A Game of Thrones without the dragons. Fans of George R.R. Martin’s best-selling fantasy epics will no doubt be skeptical of such a comparison, but the premise of Griffith’s 560-page tome doesn’t sound too far off: a brave English girl gets swept up in a battle for supremacy in a brutal land and uses quasi-magical skills to guide her uncle toward the center of power. Our interest piqued, we figured we might as well put Hild to the test for what other Martin-esque qualities we could find.
First, a few caveats: Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series draws inspiration from the fifteenth-century War of the Roses, with the Lancasters and Yorks replaced by Lannisters and Starks, but the fantasy series’ many plot points are only loosely based on actual events. Hild focuses on the Anglisc girl who would grow up to become Saint Hilda of Whitby, a real historical figure from the Dark Ages who made a name for herself as the king’s “seer.” Still, since both authors set the action in medieval times, the books naturally include depictions of how royal courts operated in those eras, with arranged marriages, assassination attempts, and conflicting old and new religions. But the most valid point of comparison is Hild herself — as well as the close relationship she has with her fictional half-brother, Cian. (Yep, there’s incest.)
Hild is like Arya.
At age 3, Hild has the world ripped out from under her when her father, prince Hereric, “should-be king of Deira,” is killed, most likely by her uncle, Edwin (there’s a Stannis-Renly vibe going on between the two royal brothers). Her family is forced first into exile and then obliged to seek refuge at King Edwin’s court, where most of her playtime is with a boy a few years older, with whom she spars using child-proof swords and spears until they graduate to real weapons. As a lady of the court, Hild is not supposed to concern herself with swords, but after receiving a long slaughter knife at age 10, she learns how to use it to defend herself and to give the direly wounded a merciful death. By 15, she’s earned herself quite a nickname: butcher bird.
Hild is like Bran.
Ever since she was little, Hild could climb trees. During one skirmish, she escapes some arrows by leaping into a tree and balancing on a bough, arms wrapped around the trunk before falling. Other characters describe her movements in awe: “She vanished from sight … fell from the sky like an eagle … wouldn’t die even when a score, twoscore, threescore Lindseymen attacked from ambush.” While recovering, she learns that she was the target of that ambush and that her life is in danger. She also briefly befriends a wolf.
Hild is like Tyrion.
During one banquet, Hild has the opportunity to ask her king for a favor, and she asks for an education. “I want to learn, to wander, to ask and think and listen like … like a priest or a prince,” she says. And so she’s installed with a tutor, a hostage Irish priest named Fursey. “Teach her,” the king commands him. “But not about your Christ.” Because of her relationship with the clergyman — a Varys-Littlefinger combo who is always trying to insinuate himself into various schemes — Hild learns not only literacy, but valuable critical-thinking skills that enable her to build her own network of spies and information.
Hild is like Melisandre.
When pregnant with Hild, her mother, Breguswith, had a dream, which she called a prophecy: that the child she carried would be the light of the world, “the jewel who will light the way.” To prove it, a 7-year-old Hild is conscripted to play soothsayer for her uncle the king, who first wants portents that his queen would bear a son and then information about battles, usurpers, and trade partners. “I don’t like surprises,” he tells her. And though Hild has no magical abilities whatsoever, she constantly observes people and the world around her, so she’s able to use common sense, logic, and deductive reasoning to provide counsel in a way that makes it seem like she might possess psychic powers. The more correct guesses or deductions Hild makes (that funny smell in the mead? must be poison), the more her legend grows. The downside to this, of course, is that Hild is thought of as a witch (or worse, a demon) and is feared and shunned by some. But being useful to the king keeps her safe, so she keeps up the ruse.
Hild is like Cersei.
Although Hild’s mother Breguswith is much more like Cersei in temperament and ability, with her constant scheming, plotting, and even poisoning, Hild has a soft spot for her half-brother Cian. When she’s three and he’s six, he first tells her, “We are us,” and it becomes a recurring line in their relationship as they grow into young adulthood: the two of them against the world. They sneak off together to practice fighting, making everyone think they’re sneaking off to do something else. She’s happiest when she’s with him, she’s jealous when she smells other girls on him, and she leads a rescue mission when she thinks he’s fallen in battle. During one of their sparring sessions, they kiss. And more.
Cian is like Jaime/Gendry/Jon Snow.
While Hild and the other members of their immediate circle know that he is also a child of King Edwin’s slain brother, Prince Hereric, and the family resemblance is fairly obvious, Cian is kept blissfully unaware. As a result, he also doesn’t view his affection for Hild as being incestuous, and doesn’t see that his very existence is a threat to the throne. He is presented to the court as being the son of Breguswith’s maidservant (which is actually true), only one whose father isn’t related to the king. Cian’s hair is also dyed during childhood in an attempt to hide his resemblance to Hild and, like his half-sister’s position as “seer,” this bit of deception keeps him safe — although the possibility will always remain that someone will figure out who his real father is. Can an arranged marriage with his sister help conceal that truth? Even a non-seer can predict that there will be more to come.